One of every 138 U.S. residents is serving time, says the Los Angeles Times. Get-tough policies enacted in the 1980s and 1990s – like three-strikes laws in California and other states – have swelled the jail and prison inmate population to a record 2.1 million. The Times says in an editorial that a pending bill from House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin would add new crimes and more prison time to a sentencing scheme that is already “extraordinarily punitive” – and in many cases it targets first-time offenders, not the violent three-strikers whose incarceration may have helped to lower the crime rate.
The Times says that the “cynically titled Safe Access to Drug Treatment and Child Protection Act of 2005 does little to push drug treatment but could do much to harm children. It would also make a bad sentencing system worse and punish judges who have rightly criticized its many inequities.” The bill would require five-year terms for the sale or distribution of every illegal drug, no matter how small the amount or the penalty under state law. Share a line of cocaine with a friend or give away a single tab of Ecstasy and risk joining the 900 new inmates who went behind bars each week in recent years. The Times concludes that, “Taxpayers are on the hook for prison costs that are spiraling out of control, and judges of all political stripes have slammed mandatory drug sentences as overkill.”